Category Archives: word geekery

observations about language and letters.

They Vet Horses, Don’t They?

For more than 30 years, we’ve heard about government officials being vetted: submitted to thorough background checks to ensure they are fit for public service. Now for the first time in public parlance, the term “vetting” is being widely applied to the background searches conducted for ordinary people seeking to enter the United States.

The term itself actually comes from the world of horse racing, where vetting is exactly what you might guess: the process by which a horse is thoroughly checked for its ability to race.

One of the first recorded applications of the term to humans was in Rudyard Kipling’s 1904 book Traffics and Discoveries. Of a military guard battalion, he writes, “They’ve been vetted, an’ we’re putting ’em through their paces.”

Through most of the first half of the 20th century, “vetting” was a curiosity, a British term primarily applied to the military, according to Juliet Lapidos, writing for Slate in 2008. The term didn’t appear in American parlance until about 1960. Its gain in popularity was examined by New York Times word pundit William Safire in 1980 and again in 1993, when he commented on the birth of a spin-off word (and profession): The White House vetter.

Until recently, anyone or anything in need of vetting had to be pretty important. Thus it’s puzzling that, a time when a candidate can rise to the highest office in the land without even releasing his taxes, he can also call for a new and more stringent process, “extreme vetting,” to be carried out against people not even seeking office, but just a new life.

Because the current immigration vetting process in place is rather thorough, we have to wonder what exactly “extreme vetting” means.

It’s not only people that can be vetted, by the way. Ideas, stories, and statements can also get a background check. In this time of rising concern about fake news and alternative facts, it’d be wise to get yourself a good vetting process on what you’re told to believe.

The Whole Thing

Once upon a time, there was a mighty word from Old Norse that meant a decision-making assembly, charged with important business–you know, futhark-laden, land-holding, axe-wielding, men-only stuff.

Over the centuries, this ancient and esteemed word became care-worn and lowly, a word to toss in the mix  when the other words in our heads block all the light and leave us grasping.


On its journey from mighty þing and mightier Alþing to simple thing, it even lost a letter. The gracefully curved thorn, along with 11 other siblings, didn’t make the cut into the modern 26-letter alphabet.

Yet, through thing‘s very ubiquitousness and utility, its insistence on cropping up again and again when a better word would surely suffice, it stands as a miracle of survival and resilience. Its distinctive starting sound, made by thrusting the tip of the tongue between the teeth and aspirating silently (‘th’) has become a hallmark of spoken English, a frustrating exercise for some non-native English speakers–and has defied the attempts of a few born speakers, too.

We suspect even Julie Andrews required elocution lessons to enunciate things with aplomb.

Favorite Things
..and then I don’t feel so bad.

Thing is, I grew up being shooed off from delicious, old words like thing. The vagueness it supposedly lends to a sentence is bad news to English teachers and buttoned-down employers who think they know what’s what. Yet try getting through just one day without it. You’ll learn a thing or two about its value.

Robby gets this.

Thing is the comfortable old blanket in many sentences, a humanizing sign that we’re actively thinking, that our minds are not perfect, our logic not impeccable, our things all in a muddle. Many things defy our understanding, and many more defy description.

The old words are the best words. That’s the thing I’m trying to say.

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